J-Town Girl: This Israeli Singer Just Released One of the Year's Finest Songs

Hadara Levin Areddy’s new album features all her virtues - the free soul, the emotional intensity, the melodic skill - but her tendency toward excess works against it as a whole.

“Your song is cutting a hole in the sky,” Hadara Levin Areddy sings in “Mama Blues,” the fifth track on her new album, “Rage Against the Eclipse.” It’s a terrific song, but if I had to choose one song on the CD that does the rare thing and cuts the skies of feeling with its beauty, it would be “J-Town Girl.”

That song is three minutes of pure pleasure, from the first note to the last. We’ll elaborate, in order to stretch the enjoyment. Immediately at the start, the song dances to two rhythms, one quick and syncopated, created by an acoustic guitar, and the other slow and floating, courtesy of a cruising electric guitar. Duality, ambiguity, ambivalence – they’re going to be the story of this song. Coming in with her sweet-rough voice and a vocal melody enlivened by a Dylanesque twist, Areddy instantly creates a complex, tangled emotional situation: “Baby you made me happy tonight / when you sent me away with those sadliest eyes.” Why is she happy if she’s being dumped? Naturally, this question has no simple answer – but who needs simple answers in songs (all of which, by the way, are in English)?

 

The song plays out on the doorstep of a loved and sad man, but it’s also set in a particular city, J-Town. By not giving us the specific name, Areddy leaves a welcome space of ambiguity, though we can surmise which city she’s talking about. Later in the song she calls the city a “ghost town,” adding, “It used to be home, now it’s base holy ground.” Quite a few people feel the same way about J-Town, and they will certainly feel a special affinity for this song. Still, neither biography nor geography account for the inordinate pleasure that “J-Town Girl” provides. The song will sound wonderful in TA-Town, too, or H-Town, and any other city or village.

Surfeit of sameness

But I’m less enthusiastic about the album as a whole; of two minds about it, really. The splendid traits that make Areddy an artist with an unmistakable personality of her own, and one of the most impressive musicians in the Israeli indie scene, are very much apparent in the album. All her virtues – the free soul, the emotional intensity, the uncensored honesty, the melodic skill, the agile shifting between black and white, between the world of soul and R&B and that of the singer-songwriter – are present, and make Areddy’s album, like the whole body of her work, a highly soulful event.

Still, two problems prevent “Rage Against the Eclipse” – Areddy’s 14th album since she launched her music career in 2001, at the age of 37 – from becoming a full eclipse, musically. The first problem, which crops up in the first half of the album, can be summed up as surfeit. Areddy is essentially an expressionist artist, with a bold, eruptive style. That’s her temperament, that’s her distinctiveness – and most of the time it works in her favor. But the first half of the new album contains a tendency toward excess, which to my ear affects the songs adversely.

That excess take several forms. Sometimes it’s a climax that arrives too soon. For example, 20 seconds into the first song, when we’re still getting acclimatized, Areddy is already foisting a super-energetic chorus on it. Ironically, the first words of the chorus are “Is it too late,” echoing the title of the song, rather than “It’s too early.” In the second track, “Trust,” there’s a problematic disparity between an extremely rich, polished production and a basically standard song, albeit quite lovely. Another example is “Leave Me Alone,” a song with no fewer than four sections, of which the first three are good and the fourth is superfluous, toppling the song. Surfeit.

The excess is felt mainly in the album’s first tracks. A different problem pervades the second half of the album: excessive uniformity in the musical character of the songs, in their structure. In fact, this shortcoming is present throughout the album, but becomes cumulative and oppressive in the second half.

Almost all the songs in “Rage Against the Eclipse” have the same format, and within each song the verse and chorus possess an identical musical structure. Diversity is a scarce commodity. There are hardly any surprises. It’s not that I picked up on the structure in the first listen, or even the third. But the fifth time, when I sensed a surfeit of sameness, I focused my attention on the structure of the songs and found an abundance of repetitive linear forms. The ambiguity, the ambivalence, the adventurousness are confined almost exclusively to the lyrics. Areddy sounds like an extraordinarily free person, but musically she’s come out with an album that’s too square – with one of the best songs of the year.

The whole album can be heard (and purchased) at http://hadara.bandcamp.com/album/rageagainst-the-eclipse